Everyone can agree that cults are bad. Fanatical devotion, religious or otherwise, to an abusive narcissist almost never ends well for anyone (except sometimes the narcissist). Still, we can’t get enough of stories about cults — the idea that in our midst are thousands of often hidden groups is fascinating to most of us, and the fear that someone we love could be lured into one is ever present. Read on to find out about just a few of the cults sweeping the world and how to help someone who’s trapped in one.
Fiona Zublin, Senior Editor, and Isabelle Lee, Reporter
cults you should know
1. The New and the NXIVM
Pronounced “Nexium,” the brainchild of Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman appeared from the outside to be a group dedicated to personal empowerment through wellness and self-help seminars. But within NXIVM was a sex cult labeled DOS and composed of women who were literally branded as “slaves.” DOS appeared to be a group devoted to female empowerment, and yet members were made to perform sexually explicit and demeaning acts, including a ritual searing of their flesh with Raniere’s initials to mark them as his property and as proof that pain equals love. This twisted modern iteration of a cult included regular text check-ins between master, a more established female member, and slave.
2. Swan’s Way
It would be impossible to deny that there is something magnetic about social media sensation Teal Swan. With 780,000 subscribers on YouTube, Swan has created what she calls the Teal Tribe, dedicated to providing spiritual and emotional healing to her supporters. Swan is a controversial figure with a dedicated following — and if you are curious whether or not her for-profit company counts as a cult, consider how she describes the thread that holds the group together: “If anyone has an issue with me, turning against me, they stand to lose all these people they’re really close to.” Nothing screams cult louder than having your support network ripped away should you dare to disagree with the leader.
While cults can often feel far away and slightly ridiculous, they bubble under the surface of our everyday lives. From QAnon to the Boogaloo Boys, we are witnessing America’s extreme fringes become disturbingly mainstream — and a serious threat, as witnessed by the Jan. 6 U.S Capitol attack. These movements often rely on bizarre conspiracy theories to indoctrinate people searching for connection and belonging. They might not practice free love or do group yoga at sunrise, but they share the dark underpinnings of the 1960s and ’70s cults gone wrong.
Based on the teachings of Osho, the founder of the cult featured in Netflix’s Wild Wild Country, OZYMA — no relation to OZY; it stands for Oshi Zen Yoga Martial Art — combines meditation, gymnastics, energy training and physical strength. Popular in India, its philosophical basis is less about physically overpowering an opponent and more about creating the best version of yourself. OZYMA founder Umesh Rohit says his goal is not to create Rajneeshees (as Osho’s followers were known), but to provide resources and a new way of approaching martial arts to his community.
The idea of being trapped in a dimly lit studio, laboring on a stationary bike while droplets of sweat fly through the air, combined with your neighbors’ heavy breathing and poor ventilation, is enough to make anyone start to panic these days, but it used to lure millions of boutique exercise seekers into SoulCycle’s darkened studios to ride together. Instructors inspired cults of personality — one even attracted a devoted following that dubbed itself “Akin’s Army.” While SoulCycle isn’t based in a traditional religion, many refer to it as a cult because of its fanatical mindset and secret language.
6. God of Love
When Emperor Hadrian’s lover Antinous fell from a boat into the Nile River, he probably had no idea that his death would make him the figurehead of one of the most popular religious cults in ancient Rome ... or maybe he did. The second-century Cult of Antinous was immortalized on coins, in statues that portrayed Antinous as a god and even in a city named after him. While the group dropped out of the history books after Rome turned to Christianity, it resurfaced in 2002 when the cult was repurposed to form an all-inclusive, LGBTQ-focused “gay religion.”
For all the rage that coconut oil has recently become, most people don’t know that an entire religion was built on worshipping the humble fruit. The cult of the coconut began when Thành Nam Nguyễn renounced the modern world and created a worship system combining Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism and, of course, everything amazing about the tasty tree nut — it is said the founder ate nothing but coconuts for three years. The cult boasted 4,000 members and even provided a sense of peace and hope during the Vietnam War.
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How to do it and how to help someone who’s trapped.
1. Put Out Your Hand
While it can be tempting to hang up on a friend or family member whose life has been taken over by a cult, experts say that to help them you need to keep talking. Ask questions rather than railing against their beliefs, and don’t try to force them to leave the situation against their will. It’s key to remember that while you may not recognize your loved one, they’re still the same person, and that cultish devotion can mimic infatuation, so criticizing the cult isn’t likely to get you far.
2. Cure Worse Than the Disease
While cults are damaging and dangerous, the 1970s saw a spate of them — and spawned a troubling industry of self-styled vigilante deprogrammers that persists to this day, with “experts” charging tens of thousands of dollars (six figures today) to help families get their loved ones back. Ted Patrick, known as the Father of Deprogramming, reportedly turned 2,000 people away from cults after he rescued his own son from the Children of God … but his methods included kidnapping and mental and physical abuse.
3. Support Yourself
Losing a close friend or relative to a cult can be emotionally draining, and groups have sprung up across the internet to share experiences and to help one another — both with deprogramming tips and emotional support. Even if you’re successful in helping a loved one, it’s a long road, and it’s important to take care of yourself as you bring your father, wife, brother or best friend back to reality.
4. Are You in a Cult?
Researchers have identified shared characteristics among groups they’d consider cults: The leaders tend to be controlling narcissists, but they also set up hierarchies within the groups to encourage followers to enforce the rules as well. There are a few types of narcissists who are drawn to cult formation: the delusional martyr, the egomaniacal teacher-preacher and the lifelong narcissist who feels entitled to mass adulation. A cult must also cause harm, whether economic, physical or psychological. While some people refer to all small religions as cults, that’s not actually part of the definition. A cult isn’t necessarily about faith, though both forms of devotion tend to have charismatic leaders, and some faiths, like Scientology, have been labeled as cults.
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When Diane Benscoter was 17 and feeling lost, she joined the Unification Church — known as “Moonies” after their leader and self-styled messiah, Sun Myung Moon — and withdrew from her family. Eventually, with the help of her parents and deprogrammers, she made it out, and now subscribes to a theory proposed by skeptic Richard Dawkins that extremist beliefs spread in a manner similar to viruses, producing a “viral mimetic infection.”
You may have heard the phrase “to drink the Kool-Aid” without knowing the specifics of Jonestown, the cult that ended tragically in 1978 with the mass suicide of nearly 1,000 people in Guyana. Jackie Speier was a legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, investigating the cult’s leader, Jim Jones. Ryan was killed by Jones loyalists, and Speier was shot five times and left to die on an airport runway. She survived and — now a seven-term California congresswoman — says she sees parallels between Jones’ hold on his followers and the loyalty shown by Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters.
Not all cults have such cultural impact — but they can scar participants for decades. Real Housewives of Orange County star Elizabeth Lyn Vargas recently opened up about being raised in what she describes as a church “cult” led by her grandmother and father, where she was abused and encouraged to speak in tongues in front of followers. “I was always scared for my life,” she recalls, “because we were beaten so bad that I thought for sure I was going to die one day of it.”
4. Saving Himself
Australian Jitarth Jadeja, a former true believer in the cultlike QAnon conspiracy theory, says he was able to deprogram himself after two years of self-radicalizing — which many QAnon adherents are encouraged to do. When logical cracks began to show in his beliefs, that same impulse to research helped pull him out of the rabbit hole, something he hopes will work for others.